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Interview: Germany's Zeitenwende
#56: With Tobias Bunde
This is our interview format, in which we give one expert a little more space. Subscribe to The Hundred below to make sure you don’t miss any future editions.
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Tobias Bunde is Director of Research & Policy at the Munich Security Conference (MSC). He is also a researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security. Our questions are in bold, his answers in block quotes.
What is Zeitenwende?
The answer depends on whom you ask. In contrast to what many people claim, Chancellor Olaf Scholz did not announce a Zeitenwende or turning point for German foreign policy, he just described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a Zeitenwende, or watershed (the official translation used by the Chancellor’s office), for European security, which required a German response. To the best of my knowledge, he has never described his government’s policies as a Zeitenwende. In the public debate, however, Zeitenwende has become associated with the response itself, in particular with an increase in defense spending, a different Russia policy, or a changing German position on weapons deliveries.
My own understanding of the Zeitenwende is broader: Germany has been witnessing the erosion of almost all geopolitical certainties, on which its foreign policy has been based since unification. In his Foreign Affairs article on the “Global Zeitenwende,” Scholz also acknowledged that the Zeitenwende “goes beyond the war in Ukraine and beyond the issue of European security.” We must find our new ways in a very different world if we want to preserve what we hold dear. As Tancredi, the young character in Giuseppe Tomaso di Lampedusa’s Gattopardo, famously exclaims: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Why was change seen as necessary?
The Russian invasion visibly undermined several widely shared beliefs. Some of the German mantras (“We can only have security in Europe with Russia, not against Russia” or “Sending weapons only adds fuel to fire”…) were proven wrong. In short, the mainstream German foreign policy worldview had a rough encounter with reality. German decision-makers realized that their country was vulnerable – dependent on Russian energy, and far from projecting military strength in the face of a revisionist aggressor.
What has changed since Scholz announced it?
A lot – but not enough. On the one hand, change has been breathtaking, and it’s fair to say that, in many ways, German foreign policy has changed more significantly in the past two years than in the two decades before. In record time, Germany freed itself from its dependency on Russian energy. After some dithering in the beginning, Germany is now one of the key providers of military support for Ukraine, second only to the United States. On the other hand, it’s still an open question whether change will be sustained and whether it is enough to be prepared for coming shocks and challenges.
What has stayed the same?
To paint with a broad brush: The Germans have yet to understand that minor adaptations will not be enough and that the necessary reforms will be costly – for everyone. Too many still believe we can live through a Zeitenwende without inconvenience.
How have Germany’s political parties adapted?
The core elements of Germany’s response to the Zeitenwende are supported by a broad majority in the Bundestag, including both the “traffic-light” coalition and the CDU/CSU, the major opposition party. For the left wings of the Social Democratic Party and the Greens, the Russian invasion was a major shock, which required a fundamental rethink of previous positions. Many prominent figures of the Green Party’s left wing embraced the chance and became key supporters for more military support of Ukraine. Many in the SPD seem to struggle with coming to terms with the erosion of previous certainties. The fringes on the far-left and the far-right offer seeming alternatives to the new consensus – if they gain in importance, all bets are off.
What does the public think?
The response to the Zeitenwende eventually undermined the myth, long peddled by decision-makers, that the German public would not support a more robust German security and defense policy. Public support for increased defense spending or weapon deliveries has been stable, and there is clearly a shift in risk perceptions among the public now. Whenever German leaders made the case for a policy change, the public essentially followed. On some issues, the public may even be more advanced than policymakers believe. Yet, as some public opinion scholars note, it is not yet clear whether this change in policy attitudes will amount to a real Zeitenwende in public opinion, that is a change in the core postures of German public opinion.
Germans have long debated NATO’s 2% goal. Is that over?
Officially, yes. In the new National Security Strategy, the government reiterated it would “allocate two percent of our GDP, as an average over a multi-year period, to reaching NATO capability goals, initially in part via the newly created special fund for the Bundeswehr.” It also endorsed a more strongly worded NATO defense spending pledge in the communiqué of the Vilnius Summit. However, there is still no clear plan how the government intends to meet the goal once the money of the special fund is spent. Germany will have to cut spending on other issues, raise taxes, or incur new debt. So far, politicians have suggested that there would be no hard trade-offs. But there will be – and this won’t be an easy debate for supporters of an increased defense budget.
Is the Bundeswehr more capable now than it used to be?
No, but this should surprise no one. Germany has just begun to order new equipment from the special fund, and it will take time until new capabilities will make a difference. If we are honest, Scholz’s announcements in the Zeitenwende speech mostly addressed long-existing shortcomings and demonstrated a way to correct previous underinvestment. While Scholz envisaged the Bundeswehr as the “best-equipped force” in Europe, it’s unclear whether (and, if so, when) Germany will be ready to “take on leading responsibility for the security of our continent.”
What’s a question you wish you were asked and what’s your answer to it?
Perhaps, it’s the question that I ask myself all the time: Has Germany learned its lessons? Will we repeat similar mistakes in our relationship with China? Are we truly ready to adapt to a different world? My answer keeps changing, and it’s likely too early to tell. Ask me again in five years.
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